Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with increased risk for age-related diseases and early mortality. An accelerated rate of biological aging could contribute to this increased risk. To investigate, we assessed leukocyte telomere length (LTL), an emerging marker of biological age, in men and women with and without PTSD. We also examined childhood trauma, a risk factor for both PTSD and short LTL, as a potential contributor to short LTL in PTSD.
Participants included 43 adults with chronic PTSD (n = 18 with multiple categories of childhood trauma) and 47 control subjects (none with multiple categories of childhood trauma) (mean age = 30.55, SD = 7.44). Exclusion criteria included physical illness, medication use, obesity, alcohol or substance abuse, and pregnancy. Structured clinical interviews were conducted to assess PTSD and other psychiatric disorders and childhood trauma exposure. LTL was measured with a quantitative polymerase chain reaction method.
As predicted, participants with PTSD had shorter age-adjusted LTL than control subjects. Exposure to childhood trauma was also associated with short LTL. In fact, childhood trauma seemed to account for the PTSD group difference in LTL; only participants with PTSD and exposure to multiple categories of childhood trauma had significantly shorter LTL than control subjects.
Childhood trauma is associated with short LTL in individuals with PTSD. Chronic exposure to the psychobiological sequelae of childhood trauma could increase risk for PTSD and short LTL. Thus, the lasting psychological impact of exposure to trauma in childhood might be accompanied by equally enduring changes at the molecular level.